Review Blog

May 06 2016

One life. My mother's story by Kate Grenville

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Text, 2015. ISBN 9781925240962
Highly recommended. Kate Grenville, the author of The Secret river and Sarah Thornhill amongst other novels, explains this biography of her mother as an attempt to describe the life of an individual who was part of a social class that is largely ignored in historical writing. However, Grenville needs no excuse or rationale; the story is beautifully told and gives her mother, Nance Gee nee Russell, 1912-2002, the dignity she deserves. It is also a very enjoyable read. There is no authorial voiceover or explanatory commentary, but this is clearly the story of women whose aspirations were stifled by societal expectations. Nance was born to Dolly and Albert Russell, an unhappily married couple who made a career from hotel keeping until the Depression hit in the early 1930s. Nance and her older brother were boarded out for a number of years, Nance at first with a very rigid and unloving Catholic spinster and then in a convent, despite not being Catholic. She was fortunate to have several years of excellent schooling in Sydney before being forced back to a country school where few boys and even fewer girls stayed past leaving age, and standards were low. Nance wanted to be a teacher but this was emphatically rejected by her mother, and instead was sent to Sydney to train as a pharmacist. She was apprenticed to a martinet and struggled to understand the university lectures. No-one had money, because of the Depression, and Nance, lonely and poor, at times thought life too hard to be worth living. There were very few girls studying and the attitude to them was disparaging. When Nance qualified she was paid less than male graduates and she missed the bonds of family life. However, she had met inspiring young women and had learnt that she could have some control over what happened to her. She ran a pharmacy and had a love affair with its owner. She could have married any one of several young men but eventually chose an inspiring young communist lawyer. When war broke out she was disillusioned by his attempts to evade service and she realized that secrecy and subversion were essential parts of his character. She saw too that while despite his evasions she loved him he admired her rather than loved her. They had two children and Nance daringly planned to run a pharmacy again. The business was a success but in the early fifties there was no child care available; her mother failed her despite offering support and her husband could not imagine doing more than he did about the house. Nance sold the pharmacy, built a house with the money and had another child, Kate. Nance tried again later to have a business but even in the late fifties child care was not available.
Love of family was a dominant theme of her life, despite a difficult relationship with her mother, and her children were a constant delight to her. Another theme is the necessity to make the most of one's talents. She believed that the unexamined life is not worth living and this is a theme of her later life in particular. The writing is engaging and the character of Nance believably established. The social history of the times is accurately reflected. This book is highly recommended.
Jenny Hamilton

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